We all have our own versions of THAT summer from our youth. Glory days spent at some crazy Dirty Dancing-like summer camp, or backpacking and hitchhiking across the country, or maybe just working at the right place at the right time with the right group of people. They are idyllic memories of inordinate amounts of fun, silliness and debauchery crammed into a discrete chunk of time and experienced with a group of characters who are still fondly remembered but likely now strewn about the country or maybe even the globe. I recently stumbled upon some old photos from just such a time with such a story with just such players.
That summer of 1999 was not my first spent at the Outdoor Program Centre, but it was one of the best. Working there involved maintaining and repairing a huge assortment of outdoor adventure rental gear and saving up enough money for your next term, your next trip, or your next pro-deal discounted gear purchase. Shorts, flip-flops and a t-shirt were the standard uniform; there was always music playing; we got to spend a good deal of time outside; and the hot summer temperatures were conquered with slushies that could be had a mere 2 minute walk away. Above all, the people were amazing. It was a wide cross-section to say the least, consisting of an eclectic ménage of adventurous, creative, interesting and fun characters and clowns.
During slow periods it was not uncommon to find people swinging Tarzan-like from climbing ropes fixed to the ceiling, meant for suspending and drying wet tents. Nor was it unusual to see how many fully inflated white water rafts could be stacked upon one another while checking them for leaks, or to then clamber up to the top one for a quick snooze during a break. There were bins of life jackets large enough to climb into like a kids plastic ball pit, where you could bury yourself and be sufficiently concealed to scare the bejesus out of the next co-worker reaching in to grab one for a rental order. The adult-sized baby jumper was a classic. Constructed out of discarded bike inner tubes it required donning a climbing harness and climbing on top of a step-ladder to clip into it, before jumping off for a good adult-sized bounce.
Most often the shenanigans at OPC led to great fun, but sometimes they turned bad, like when a co-worker needed to get stitches after I accidentally stabbed him in the arm while we were constructing white water river boogie boards out of foam. But usually things turned out much better, and it was out of this womb of silliness and ingenuity that the Wednesday Night Rides was born. That and the boredom of staying open really late every Wednesday night with nothing else to do while waiting for the kayakers returning from their weekly group paddle.
I’m not sure exactly how the actual bike racing part started, but it likely evolved from fun “test” rides taken on the odd collection of bikes we arrived at work on or had lying about the shop. Most of us rode standard road or mountain bikes, so even the bmx bike we had was somewhat unusual for us, but there was also a low rider with monkey bars, a really old department store 10-speed, and a custom hybrid monster that had a 29-inch rear wheel and a 20-inch front wheel and a set of cow-horn style bars. For the latter, instead of mounting brakes on those homemade handlebars we ran a cable from the head tube along the top tube, and looped it through the caliper of the rear brake. In order to slow that chimera beast down you had to reach between your legs, grasp the cable and pull up hard on it, exactly the way you used to have to pull down on the cable to indicate your stop on public buses. It was awesome, but you had to be so careful riding it because the small front wheel lowered the cranks which meant running the risk of a pedal hitting the ground while leaning into turns.
I don’t remember a lot of specifics about the evolution of the race details either, but I know it quickly got to the point where there were racers, timers, and always a few general bystanders cheering us on. Just after dark someone would volunteer to be the course designer and would head out for a walk. They would mark some of the course with traffic cones and utilise other local features such as sidewalks, parked cars, statues, and trees. The bike would be chosen, and each rider would get a pre-ride and then we would all do one timed lap. If we liked the course another round of competition would follow on the same course but on a different bike, or a new course designer would step up and the fun would begin anew.
The starting line would be the threshold of the shop door where the rider would enter the night, passing the timer sitting in a chair with their stopwatch and clipboard. Sometimes the other riders would stand there also waiting for their turns, or they would go out to strategic points on the course to cheer, do a little recon, or sometimes for a photo-op. You see, there were often pictures taken, and very often in the dark background of those pictures, if you were to look closely, you would be able to make out the image of a man with his pants down. The impromptu mooning somehow became a thing. Like it or not, it was just part of the racing.
The more popular course routes would involve riding at full speed through the legs of a giant stringy statue of a speed skater outside of the oval, or bombing down the loading dock ramp only to have to pull a tight turn around a pylon at the bottom and then mash on the pedals to try to pedal back up. Sometimes small Napoleon Dynamite-esque jumps were cleared, curbs were hopped, or heads were ducked while we sped under and narrowly missed sloping concrete arches coming off the oval building.
The races also went rain or shine, so lucky for us we had a plethora of wet jackets for kayaking, knee and elbow pads for rollerblading, and helmets for white water rafting that we repurposed into rain gear and armour for the inevitable wet asphalt slide outs and crashes.
Sometimes our creativity would get the better of us and we would end up trying to do something stupid like race with rollerblades on. Not ON the rollerblades though, no, we were still on the bikes. If you’ve never tried pedaling a bmx bike with rollerblades on, don’t bother, it’s stupid hard. And the thought that you would be able to put your skate down in a hard corner and balance on the rollerblade wheels to really whip through the turn with never-before-seen smoothness, precision and grace, is simply not true.
The Wednesday night bike races went on for the better part of four months. Each week a winner would be determined for each course and bike combination, but nothing accumulated, no records were kept, no trophies awarded. There was not even mild concern with bragging rights. But it was that kind of pure innocent fun that can only arise organically and can never be exactly replicated. And the best part is that the Wednesday night bike races, as indicative as they are, are still only one part of what that summer was as a whole.